The Last American Sin

The Last American Sin November 14, 2011

Watching the Penn State fiasco shake out last week awoke to my consciousness something that stirs every time we witness—or rather, hear about in the media—a sexual abuse scandal that involves children. Facebook and the blogosphere lit up with indignation from all corners. Penn State students who rallied in support of Coach Paterno were lumped in with him in Americans’ collective disgust. Simply put, there are to be no viable defenses of Penn State, its administration, or its football staff. Why? Because Jerry Sandusky committed the last American sin. I’m calling it that because I can think of no other act that can resonate so negatively with virtually all Americans. Murder is too localized. We’re no longer patriotic enough to get worked up over treason. So far as I can tell, sexual acts with children are the only egregious acts—sins, as it were—from which the vast majority of Americans still noticeably recoil, regardless of religion, race, gender, age, or politics. It’s a
strangely uniting moment when something like it happens.

What exactly is it about child molestation that uniquely unites Americans in outrage?

This is where it gets murky. Many, I suspect, would say something about the long-term emotional ramifications of such acts. Trust me—the data I’m aware of document that pronounced consequences exist. (The mother of an acquaintance of mine who took his own life a decade after such abuse called it “soul murder.”) But talk of consequences—the things that typically happen in the wake of something—doesn’t amply reflect our conviction that the act is wrong-in-itself (which it is).

Others speak of a loss of innocence—whatever that means. While I think I get it, it’s pretty vague, and it implies that at some point in time the rest of us apparently lose our innocence, too, though typically in far-less traumatic manners. (Indeed, when I assigned Premarital Sex in America to my undergraduates last Spring, one student complained of something similar after reading it. I felt a bit bad about that, actually.) I sense that “loss of innocence” refers to the premature and uninvited introduction of the sexual. To be sure, this has detrimental consequences for “normal” sexual development, but Americans are no longer on the same page about what normal sexual development and sexual behavior ought to look like. (And we’re back to talking about consequences.)

There is unequal power at work in child molestation, but unequal power by itself
isn’t inherently wrong, and is a normal experience in human social life. Nevertheless,
in no shortage of adults’ own (legal) sexual relationships, there is unequal power at work. And in the sexual market at large, power is not equally distributed among men and women. But a child is not an adult, and the power imbalance here is certainly profound, and used to ill effect.

There is the underage sex part of this, but it doesn’t seem to me that Americans—including many Christians—sufficiently problematize the sexualization of youth today. (Ever heard of Glee?) On the contrary, Americans sexualize early adolescents like never before, with the caveat that you may not legally touch them—sexually, that is—until they’ve arrived at the age of (and offered their) consent, itself a somewhat-arbitrary legal determination made by states (which differ among themselves on what that age ought to be).

Thus Americans are united in recognizing that child molestation is wrong—as they ought—but probably couldn’t exactly agree on the various reasons for why it is wrong. This may be, in part, because dignity is a missing element in our discourse around human relationships, including sexual ones. (In his book on human personhood, Christian Smith identifies dignity as “an inherent worth of immeasurable value that is deserving of certain morally appropriate responses.”) We recognize that people who sexually prey on children—as well as those that fail to do everything in their power to stop them, even to their own hurt—ignore their victims’ (as well as their own) dignity.

But there are shades of gray here—things are not just black and white—as our blog title connotes. I don’t detect much concern for dignity in the accounts I’m hearing from young adults about their own sexual decision-making, legal though it is. Smith asserts that it’s not as if dignity no longer exists when we wish it not to—it must and it does. The first line of the Catechism’s section on Life in Christ is this: “Christian, recognize your dignity…” (And yes, I recognize the irony of quoting from a Catholic document here.) But we’re reticent to speak of dignity when discussing sexuality, because to do so would indict not only all adult-child sexual  relationships—as they ought—but also sexual relationships wherein adults treat other adults not as persons but as things.  A person—including a spouse—ought never to be treated as a functional object. Because children are more vulnerable, their dignity is more apt to be ignored and abused, than, say, the dignity of an adult. Because we recognize that in the Penn State case, our ire is understandably provoked.

While the age of consent is a social construction (but not a fiction)—something subject to change, to law, and to popular opinion—dignity is not. Unfortunately, dignity sounds weak, whereas the law sounds like something strong and uniting. We have it backwards. Most Americans naturally recoil from the thought of a 16-year-old having sex with a 50-year-old, legal though it may be. This seems to me the reason why the State of Texas arrested oodles of FLDS members in El Dorado back in 2008, only to watch the cases legally collapse. It offends the dignity inherent in our personhood and in our relationships. This can be ascertained by people of sound mind, and is not itself the property of a religion or philosophy. People naturally recoil, as they should, when human dignity is ignored. That impulse to recoil when dignity is ignored—legally or not—is rooted in human personhood and reality, and this is the reason why Americans’ sorrow over offended dignity, if we’re honest, shouldn’t stop at egregious illegal acts like this one. But it typically does.

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  • While most Americans are horrified by the thought of most child sexual abuse, there does not seem to be much concern about the horrific rates of teen sexual abuse inside of juvenal detention facilities. Those cases of sexual abuse mostly are at the hands of guards and the victims are mostly unlikeable teens, often minority and poor. But their personhood should theoretically be just as important to us, at least as Christians.

  • Bill Wheaton

    Cruelty to animals comes a close second. Think Michael Vick and the outrage that caused. Sadly, the same people that are willing to forgive him will likely try to forgive Paterno et al.

    Is it my imagination, or does this always seem to revolve around sports somehow?

  • 14 November 2011

    Dear Doctor Joe,

    I think all of your comments on this subject are spot on. I’d like to add “rape of any kind” to your list.


    Jim O’Dillon

  • Hmmm. I had a lengthy comment typed out as to why I think this is. Your comment box said it appeared “spammy.” Topical, probably. 🙂

    Bummer. Is there somewhere I could email it to you?

    • Mark Regnerus

      Sure; send it to: regnerus(at)prc(dot)utexas(dot)edu. I approve everything that looks remotely civil. Not sure why it wouldn’t go through…

      • Mark Regnerus

        From Holly Johnson:

        Do you think that it might have to do with the concept that a child’s psyche is largely unformed prior to a certain age, that they are considered to be in a state of “becoming” and where their thoughts, desires, and patterns are unset? By harming/molesting a child, a person (often perverted, at the least deeply wounded themselves) intrudes and forces upon the child’s “becoming” and forever changes who that child might have been? It’s not something like a bruise that goes away (so it is viewed as worse than child abuse – which I think it is) but everyone knows that sexual abuse has the potential to ruin a child forever, to change who they “are” from a foundational level. A child is not overtly, naturally sexually aware (without having been exposed to sexual things) – while the argument could be made that a teenager (even an early adolescent, due to hormonal shifts) is. That would change the dynamics, I think – between why people recoil (properly, imho) at the thought of a child being molested and why the lines blur between other
        offenses involving even slightly older individuals.

        Just the first thought that came to my mind. I was the victim of both physical and sexual abuse as a child – and as I think about the two types I am able to clearly differentiate between how the two felt and the effects of both throughout a lifetime. One is clearly worse.
        Physical abuse is against the body, and it hurts – but it can be seen as an outside sin. (Though, certainly, there is internal healing that needs to take place there, too.) But sexual sin against a child is absolutely soul stealing. Something very, very vital is assaulted and
        simply, literally…stolen. Hard to define, as you say above – but literal and valid, I think. I think most people recognize this, even though they may not be able to articulate it. Frankly, I’m glad that we (still) recognize this last, universal, American sin.

        Holly Johnson

  • Thanks, Mark. I appreciate that. 🙂

  • j smith

    Do you know where the negative effects of child sexual abuse literature is reviewed, or any go-to studies that review the topic?

  • William Reed

    If an adult male likes having sex with adult males he is called a homosexual. If an adult male likes having sex with male children why don’t we call then homosexual pedophiles? It seems like it would fit.